The Guardian: It’s suddenly like the bad old days: accusations flying between capitals, crowds chanting angry slogans outside the British embassy, ambassadors summoned to explain their governments’ positions and public insults attesting to a
sudden deterioration in a long and troubled relationship. The Guardian
History casts a long shadow as relations between Britain and Iran worsen over the situation in Iraq, writes Ian Black
It’s suddenly like the bad old days: accusations flying between capitals, crowds chanting angry slogans outside the British embassy, ambassadors summoned to explain their governments’ positions and public insults attesting to a sudden deterioration in a long and troubled relationship.
Chilled by winds blowing in from the desert, Anglo-Iranian relations echo the 1950s, when the US and Britain backed a coup against nationalist prime minister Mossadeq; Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution that toppled the shah in 1979; or to the decade of tensions over the fatwa ordering the killing of Salman Rushdie.
Now a fresh layer is being added to this mound of weighty historical baggage by Britain’s military presence in Iraq and the confrontation over the Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.
The latest trouble began in August when talks between the EU and Iran, with Britain in the lead, broke down over the demand that Iran suspend nuclear reprocessing activities because of suspicions it was secretly planning to produce nuclear weapons.
The EU initiative was launched in 2003 in order to avoid another Iraq-type situation with the US on one side of the argument and a divided and impotent Europe on the other. It has always been viewed with suspicion by the Bush administration, which favours sticks over carrots, and it was always hard to see how a serious clash could be avoided. Britain, said a scornful Iranian official as the bilateral temperature plummeted, was acting like a “19th century colonial power”.
Matters worsened in June when Iranians elected a new hardline president, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, the mayor of Tehran. But the flashpoint this time was in the volatile south of Iraq. Anonymous British officials – followed by Tony Blair himself – warned that Iran was not only supporting Shia militias operating against UK forces in the Basra area, but arming them.
The alleged evidence was sophisticated armour-piercing explosives and infrared control mechanisms similar to equipment used by Hizbullah, the Lebanese guerrilla movement with years of experience fighting Israel with backing from Iran.
This week, Iran retaliated and took the row a step further, with the president accusing British agents of being behind bomb attacks which killed six people in the southern city of Ahvaz, capital of Khuzestan province, the heart of Iran’s oil industry, and just across the border from Iraq.
“Our people are used to these kind of incidents, and our intelligence agents found the footprints of Britain in the same incidents before,” Ahmadinejad told his cabinet. “We think the presence of British forces in southern Iraq and near the Iranian border is a factor behind insecurity for the Iraqi and Iranian people.”
Britain has forcefully denied any link with the bombings as well as similar attacks in June. These were blamed on Iranian Arab extremists with ties to unnamed foreign intelligence services. Iranian security officials reportedly concluded that the bombers were trained abroad and that weapons and equipment were smuggled in from Iraq’s al-Amara province, which is under British control.
Khuzestan has often reflected wider tensions: Saddam’s intelligence services backed secessionists amongst the province’s Arab population, and it was they who took over the Iranian embassy in London in the famous 1980 siege ended by the SAS.
In Tehran, the president’s remarks were picked up enthusiastically by the conservative media. The Kayhan newspaper called for a severing of diplomatic relations between the two countries and demanded the closure of the “den of spies”.
It was not the first time the epithet has been applied to the British embassy, still in the sprawling walled compound bordered by Bobby Sands Avenue. It used to be called Winston Churchill Avenue but was renamed to honour the IRA Maze hunger striker during the angry period after the collapse of the Peacock throne.
In those days Britain was routinely vilified in Iran as the “little Satan”, while the “great Satan”, of course, was the US, still resentful a quarter of a century later over the 444-day occupation of its embassy by the “student militants” who swept to power with Khomeini.
The old ayatollah once gave a sermon in which he said that the days were gone when the British ambassador could issue instructions to the shah. And one of his most frequently quoted sayings, daubed for a time on the walls of the embassy was that “America is worse than the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union is worse than America. Britain is worse than both.”
Diplomats suggest Iran is deliberately exploiting the Khuzetsan incidents to divert attention from domestic problems, and perhaps to hit back at Britain for its role in the nuclear talks. To underline the point, bilateral trade has been slowed by a sudden bout of red tape.
British officials suspect that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, linked to the most conservative elements in Tehran, is working with the Shia militias who have been making life difficult for the 8,500 British troops in Iraq.
These tensions are part of a new reality that has greatly enhanced Iran’s influence in Iraq. Having watched one old enemy – Washington – deal effectively with another – Saddam – Tehran is now reaping the rewards.
Last January’s Iraqi elections produced a winning coalition of Shia groups, led by the Islamic Dawa party and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), both based in Tehran while Saddam was in power. The new relationship was sealed in wide-ranging agreements signed between the two governments in the summer.
Iranian agents have found it easy to penetrate Iraq’s security and intelligence services, especially since the Iraqi interior minister is the former head of the Badr Corps, the Iranian-created and funded military arm of SCIRI. The Badr brigades, like the Kurdish peshmerga in the north, and now being incorporated into the Iraqi military.
In southern Iraq the portraits of Saddam have been replaced by those of Shia clerics and Khomeini – the same Khomeini believed by the shah to have organised his revolution with the help of messages broadcast on the BBC’s Persian service, part of that old Iranian obsession with perfidious Albion. Now that British squaddies are patrolling the streets of Basra, it is no wonder that old animosities and suspicions are coming to the surface again.